Automation's Evil Twin
De-Skilling America's Labor Force
By DAVID MACARAY
IF THERE WERE ANY lingering doubts about Corporate America's contempt for working men and women, the on-going attempt to replace people with robots should put those doubts to rest. Clearly, a company that prefers a "mechanical man" to a functioning human being is trying to tell us something.
A recent announcement by Big Three automakers that they plan to invest a billion dollars over the next decade in the development of robotics reminded me of a remark made by an HR representative of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, some years ago.
Off-handedly, he suggested that we might be surprised at what kind of workforce would, hypothetically, "scare" a management team. For example, it wouldn't be a lazy, belligerent or even militantly pro-union workforce. Those types, he assured us, could be "fixed" (his term). No, the scariest workforce would be a conspicuously talented one.
Why? Because talent is expensive. Talent is leverage. And while there is obviously a profound upside to having valuable workers, there is, paradoxically, a built-in downside: Management is now dependent upon a variable it can't control.
Typically, people with "careers" are interested in advancement, recognition, self-realization, etc. Ambition is recognized as a virtue and is encouraged. Conversely, people with "jobs" tend to focus on wages and benefits. But because wages and benefits constitute overhead, ambition among the "gravy-and-french fry crowd" (witty management-speak) is not only discouraged, it often needs to be "fixed."
Accordingly, management has embraced a strategy called "de-skilling," the systematic dumbing-down of jobs into easily mastered tasks. De-skilling is to virtuosity what Agent Orange is to foliage. While its primary goal is to improve efficiency through standardization, it's also a means of "neutralizing" a workforce.
We see a glimpse of it in the fast-food industry. Employees now press buttons with pictures of menu items. No arithmetic to mess with, no management worries about having enough cross-trained employees to go around. The job becomes, literally, as easy as A-B-C.
Warehousing is a better example. Before computerization, shipping checkers (the forklift drivers who load trucks) needed to know how to "cube out" a load. It was an art. They had to visualize the "cube," calculate its volume, number of cases, and number of stacks-to fill an 18-wheeler. It isn't rocket science, but it requires logic and finesse.
Today, the size and shape of every container in the warehouse-along with the interior dimensions of every trailer and boxcar in the yard-are logged into a computer. Everything is bar-coded. Monitors mounted on forklifts tell checkers where to go, what to scan, how much to grab, where to take it, and how to stack it.
While accuracy has improved significantly, productivity has not. Forcing checkers to paint by-the-numbers not only prevents any creative time-saving, it's a morale buster, an insult, like hitching a thoroughbred race horse to a plow. Also, with everything tied to one computer, a minor glitch now shuts down the entire warehouse.
But management got what they wanted. Checker-training used to require two months; now it's two weeks. Because experienced checkers were a relatively valuable commodity, they could earn $60,000 annually. Today, they compete with drivers making $11 an hour.
Companies tell unions not to worry. They remind them that automation itself was once demonized, and that until workers saw the phenomenon in action and came to appreciate the advantages of mechanization, they feared it.
But automation arrived long before America's manufacturing sector had been hollowed-out and picked-over; it arrived when good jobs were still plentiful, and workers had time to adjust to new technology.
De-skilling is different. It has the potential to erode what's left of blue-collar dignity and leave in its wake a sub-class of drones. By stripping workers of their craft-effectively washing out their value on the open market-de-skilling has revealed itself as automation's evil twin brother. And there's no easy "fix" in sight.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org